23 April 2008

A rose and a book

Today is the worldwide Day of the Book, but more specifically in Catalonia, April 23 is the day of Sant Jordi. On this day, lovers present each other with a rose and a book.

Why the rose? Legend has it that Saint George (Sant Jordi), Christian martyr who died on this day, killed a dragon who had menaced the realm for years and who had a princess in his claws. From the dragon's spilled blood grew a perfect red rose, which he, gallant knight that he was, presented to the princess.

Why the book? In Catalonia the book tradition developed in the 1920s to celebrate this day, on which falls the births of Shakespeare and Nabakov, and the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (same day, same year!), as well as Josep Pla and William Wordsworth.

Every year the Generalitat de Catalunya creates a nice Sant Jordi web animation. I recommend checking it out here. There are three different animations, one each for the rose, the book, and Sant Jordi. Click at the top of the page for the English version.

Although I've never been in Barcelona on April 23, I know that the streets fill with book and flower sellers. I'd love to see it, and to rummage around the bookstalls. This year, the Mister and I have to make do with a virtual rose and we'll postpone the books a bit until he returns from his trip.

I bought myself a few books yesterday, though, in honor of the event (well, not that I really ever need an excuse, but still...): a couple of Margaret Atwood novels, a Haruki Murakami novel, and a volume of Auden poems. Rather unusually for me (because I usually read faster than I buy), at the moment I've actually accumulated quite a pile of "for fun" reading, so they'll just have to go on the stack.

In honor of the day of books and roses, I have for you a rose poem. It was hard to choose just one, but ultimately I had to choose Rilke, because the rose was a kind of totem for him throughout his life: his epitaph is two lines composed on the rose, "no one's sleep beneath so many lids," and the leukemia that killed him purportedly first showed its symptoms after he was pricked by a rose.

This poem, in a translation by William Gass, so closely observes the world of roses that you are drawn in on a minute, tender level. It's worth reading slowly, and savoring all of its turns and swirls of imagery. Plus, it was composed on the island of Capri (!), in a little cottage called "The Rose House." I especially love that last stanza before the final line, its whirlwind of world focused down into a handful of rose.

The Bowl of Roses
by Ranier Maria Rilke

You've seen their anger flare, seen two boys
bunch themselves into a ball of animosity
and roll across the ground
like some dumb animal set upon by bees;
you've seen those carny barkers, mile-high liars,
the careening tangle of bolting horses,
their upturned eyes and flashing teeth,
as if the skull were peeled back from the mouth.

But now you know how to forget such things,
for now before you stands the bowl of roses,
unforgettable and wholly filled
with unattainable being and promise,
a gift beyond anyone's giving, a presence
that might be ours and our perfection.

Living in silence, endlessly unfolding,
using space without space being taken
from a space even trinkets diminish;
scarcely the hint there of outline or ground
they are so utterly in, so strangely delicate
and self-lit—to the very edge:
it possible we know anything like this?

And then like this: that a feeling arises
because now and then the petals kiss?
And this: that one should open like an eye,
to show more lids beneath, each closed
in a sleep as deep as ten, to quench
an inner fire of visionary power.
And this above all: that through these petals
light must make its way. Out of one thousand skies
they slowly drain each drop of darkness
so that this concentrated glow
will bestir the stamens till they stand.

And the movement in the roses, look:
gestures which make such minute vibrations
they'd remain invisible if their rays
did not resolutely ripple out into the wide world.

Look at that white one which has blissfully unfolded
to stand amidst its splay of petals
like Venus boldly balanced on her shell;
look too at the bloom that blushes, bends
toward the one with more composure,
and see how the pale one aloofly withdraws;
and how the cold one stands, closed upon itself,
among those open roses, shedding all.
And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask — it just depends —
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.

What can't they be? Was that yellow one,
lying there hollow and open, not the rind
of a fruit in which the very same yellow
was its more intense and darkening juice?
And was this other undone by its opening,
since, so exposed, its ineffable pink
has picked up lilac's bitter aftertaste?
And the cambric, is it not a dress
to which a chemise, light and warm as breath,
still clings, though both were abandoned
amid morning shadows near the old woodland pool?
And this of opalescent porcelain
is a shallow fragile china cup
full of tiny shining butterflies —
and there — that one's holding nothing but itself.

And aren't they all that way? just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.

It now lies free of care in these open roses.

1 comment:

UstaazNathan said...

When I was a freshman, I picked up the selected works of Rilke after 2 semesters of German and tried to translate that poem. Boy was that a mistake.